To make beer production more sustainable, European brewing companies have started using blockchain technology. However, NGOs warn that single-use packaging still contributes to a large carbon footprint for many beverages.
Blockchain technology is being used to trace beers “from the farmer to the final consumer,” Erik Novaes, vice president of procurement and sustainability at drink and brewing company AB InBev, explained during a recent EURACTIV event.
According to Novaes, by integrating production stages along the supply chain onto the blockchain, information can be gathered about the life cycle of beverages.
He explained that this information could then be used to improve efficiency and make the production process more sustainable. For example, working “together with farmers on sustainability and crop yield practices to increase their productivity”.
Blockchain technology can systematically collect data and then store it in a way that makes it difficult to hack or be interfered with. These features are valuable in a sector where transparency and origin are essential.
However, Barry Ness, a researcher at Lund University’s centre for sustainability studies, cautioned that the technology might risk leaving small breweries behind, expressing doubt that such an integrated system could be “brought down to that level”.
Moreover, Ness said sustainability efforts would need to be ramped up to fulfil the commitments of the Paris agreement.
“According to the studies I’ve been looking at, we are really in need of some kind of abrupt, transformative change for this,” he said during the event, adding that a 55% cut in carbon dioxide emissions would be needed by 2030, according to some estimates.
To attain this and bring the brewing and beverages industry in line with a circular economy, William Neale, advisor for a circular economy at the European Commission, stressed that measures across the products’ life cycle would be needed.
The European Commission unveiled its new circular economy action plan on Wednesday (11 March), confirming the EU’s intention of halving municipal waste by 2030, and suggesting to offer consumers a new “right to repair” for computers and smartphones.
Resources that go into the production of beverages would need to be used more efficiently, while it would be necessary to find ways of putting byproducts to good use. The more efficient recycling of waste should also be addressed, he added during the debate.
In March 2020, the European Commission had unveiled a circular economy action plan, which sets the target of halving municipal waste by 2030. Moreover, according to the strategy, all packaging placed on the EU market is set to be reusable or recyclable in an economically viable way by 2030.
According to the Commission, half of total greenhouse gas emissions in Europe come from resource extraction and processing. The plan is set to make a key contribution to achieving climate neutrality by 2050.
Single-use glass sustainability
As for the food and beverages sector, the EU’s flagship policy, ‘Farm to Fork’, is also meant to contribute to a circular economy by preventing waste and food loss.
So far, however, waste and recycling are still a key factor in driving up the carbon footprint of beer products and other beverages, according to Larissa Copello from Zero Waste Europe.
“Today, almost all sectors are dependent on single-use packaging, and that entails a lot of carbon emissions,” she said, adding that a shift towards reusable packaging in the beverage sector was not only a matter of urgency when it comes to climate action.
“There is already a lot of robust data on not only on the environmental benefits of a reusable system, but social and economic ones as well, including waste savings and energy savings, apart from savings for CO2 emissions,” Copello explained.
According to a recent study by Zero Waste Europe, a reusable glass bottle produces 85% fewer carbon emissions than a single-use one, she added.
However, Adeline Farrelly from the European Container Glass Federation (FEVE) stressed glass as a material was “fully reusable and infinitely recyclable”.
“We have to recognise that glass has been successfully collected for recycling and bottle banks for decades,” she said, adding that glass was “way more efficiently collected in bulk”.
At large, to achieve a transition towards more sustainability in the beverage industry, a systemic approach would be needed that considers the whole supply chain, the Commission’s William Neale concluded.
For this, blockchain technology could be “extremely useful”, he said, adding that examples from the textiles and electric vehicles sector were already showing how actors along the value chain could come together to help take stock of a product’s sustainability.
[Edited by Alice Taylor]